In my first blogpost, I would like to discuss my experience with public transport, focusing on my physical disabilities, requiring me to use a wheelchair.
First of all, I think a lot of people try to avoid public transport. It’s expensive and not very convenient. You probably have to travel to the station first, then you can use the public transport and you probably have to continue traveling after you ‘arrived at your destination’, because your destination is usually somewehere else. For people with disabilities it’s usually even worse.
Within Europe there are a lot of differences in how well the public transport is adapted to wheelchair users. Usually in the more western part of Europe it’s quite adapted, or so the governemnts like to think. Just last week I was in a discussion with a civil servant about the ‘great posibilities for disabled users to use the public transport’. It’s such a hustle!
If you have to use public transport while you’re in a wheelchair, I can only urge you to travel with someone. Often other passengers won’t help you (I’ll talk about the behaviour of passengers another time). And there’s the first problem really, because you’re so dependant. What if you can’t find anyone who can come with you?
I can actually skip talking about the train, since I’ve never seen a train, I was able to go in with my wheelchair. I’ve been in quite some European countries and I’ve personally never come across a train with a suitable entrance. They always have stairs or ‘steps’, which is how the staff prefers to call them. “Of course our train is suitable for wheelchair users. You can’t walk stairs? No problem, you just have to take these 5 steps, that’s not a staircase “. Luckily, I can walk very short distances and occassionally it goes well enough that I can take a few steps, if I really have to. ‘Cause it still hurts a lot. The person who came with me has to take the stairs while lifting my wheelchair, so I always try to stumble inside the train by myself, because it’s heavy enough to lift the wheelchair without me in it (as you can probably imagine).
When you’ve overcome that obstacle, you’ll get a couple more. Another one I specifically encounter in trains: it’s too narrow (the doors and hallways). You can’t move at all, but you can’t sit in the doorway either. Usually in underground and bus there’s no space for you either. Sometimes they have a special spot for users with disabilities, but often these are taken (most of the time by people who don’t need it, but it’s just too crowded).
Mind the gap
This will probably ring a bell, even when you have no experience with wheelchairs at all. Especially London is famous for it’s kind, heart-warming message in the underground, a.k.a. subway (and I think you can also here in the (railway) train?), which you won’t find annoying at all when you have to use the underground hours a day. It’s something we should be grateful about, I suppose. They warn you, in case you’ve never travelled to that station (or with the underground at all) or in case you’re really tired after your busy day at work or shopping. But I still wonder why they haven’t actually done anything about those gaps. I think solving the problem would be still better than warning for it. The excuse that the subway was build many years ago, is a popular one. Since every building and public place is supposed to be accessible for everyone, they sometimes try to fix it.
Often the bus can get lower and the driver can call out an electric ramp. If he sees or hears you in the first place. I often experience that they’re already gone, when I can finally call for help and try to get in. And I’ve also encountered quite some bus drivers who just weren’t in the mood to do that and told me to get in the normal way, or just take another bus.
At the underground, some stations have a little ramp (or hill), where you can supposedly access the underground easily. Again, my experience is that the underground train doesn’t stop at that spot, so I’ll have to ‘run’ to get to the front of the station and then try to get in. When they do stop there however, often there’s still a huge gap. And of course most stations don’t have this yet (it was old, remember?). When you ask staff for help in that situation, they’ll often tell you to use the bus instead.
Last but not least, the elevator. It’s surprising how many underground stations or railway stations, don’t have elevators at all or not suitable ones for wheelchair users (too narrow..). Then I’m not talking about the manners of other passengers yet, because that’s often a problem with elevators too. Sometimes the staff tells me there surely is an elevator, when I ask them where it is, because I can’t find it. In Budapest for example, they got angry with me because I was standing right in front of it. Yeah, a giant escalator.. that’s not an elevator.
[Photo of four very long, shallow escalators with some people on it. And the sign exit Kijárat go up.]
When you’re walking on crunches you can sort of still use the escalator (although that’s not so easy either). But with the wheelchair, it’s just so dangerous! I’ve heard of wheelchair users who can use an escalator by themselves, by letting their wheelchairs stand in a certain way and a lot of arm strengh to hold this position. I’ve no idea how to do this and I don’t think I’ll ever dare try or learn this. So in my case, I need (usually at least 2 people) who can lift the wheelchair. The person at the front of the wheelchair has to stand backwards (facing me). I wasn’t going to talk about the manners of other passengers yet, but for thise one I’ll make an acception. Of course mostly the other passengers often don’t understand why we’re moving so slow (we’re not walking, so it’s the escalator’s speed) and often quite some will start pushing and yelling, apparently to make things easier.
Well, this was a ‘summary’ of my experiences with public transport. I’m happy with every little thing they adapted, but there’s still room for improvement, since it’s still (a lot) harder for people with disabilities (in this case wheelchair users) to travel this way than for ‘normal’ people. I hope you won’t have to experience this, or when you do, it will go well. Please go prepared, because that can help a lot. Do you have any experiences with using public transport? Maybe some advice?